December 4th, 2009 / 3:00 pm
I Like __ A Lot

I Like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz A Lot: Part 5


I like Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz so much that every day this week, I’ll be posting excerpts from a really long interview between Cristin and I about writing, New York and her forthcoming book Everything is Everything which will be released in January 2010 by Write Bloody Press. In today’s final excerpt, Cristin talks about what keeps slam poets from the printed page, really huge Word files and guardians of slam poetry history.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Why don’t more slam poets submit their work to lit mags?

It’s a combination of things.

The biggest problem is they [slam poets] don’t know where to begin, because they are about a thousand times more likely to purchase a chapbook at a performance or an anthology from a bookstore, than they are to buy (let alone read) a literary journal. For the most part the only literary journals slam poets can name, are the big ones – “Poetry,” “The New Yorker,” “The Paris Review” – and it is not uncommon for them to submit some poetry there, not realizing how ridiculous that is. When they get rejected, they just think, “Oh, I guess that road isn’t made for me” and go no further than that.

Additionally, the ‘work to outcome’ ratio can seem depressingly off-balanced to slam poets. When you start out in slam, you write & perform & write & perform, and with any luck, you start booking gigs, which can range from $50 (for a local slam venue) to a $1,000 or more (colleges). But when you submit to literary journals, you are tying up that poem for weeks, if not months, for the privilege of having them publish it for a contributor copy. Or, you know, reject it. Energy vs. reward can seem a bit skewed in that sense, when compared to slam world, where work and outcome is a little more direct.

Another thing to note is that for a community based on listening to and seeing poets perform their own work, it’s a hard transition to getting to know a poet (let alone a bunch of poets) through randomly seeing their name pop up in a variety of journals. It’s something that takes work, and energy, and dedication. I, of course, think it’s absolutely worth it, but for other poets, it can feel rather hopeless.

And lastly, slam poets can be lazy. If they are finding their experiences in slam fulfilling – in terms of expressing their own work, and discovering new work by others – they may not want to make the extra effort to explore other venues like lit journals.

All that being said, literary journal publication is definitely becoming a trend among this latest group of slam poets – with journals such as Rattle, PANK and decomP, being popular choices for slammers to try their hand at submitting. I’m interested to see how far this will go — interested and hopeful!

You are quite prolific. How often do you write? I know this next question is all too often asked of writers but it interests me nonetheless. Do you have a writing process?

When it comes to my non-fiction projects, I always have a file folder in my computer that is filled with all sorts of weird files – research material, half-finished chapters, outlines, deleted factoids, interview transcriptions and the like. Putting together a book is trying to merge all of these files into one big file – or really two big files “The Book” and “Stuff Cut Out of the Book.”

With poetry, I only have one active file at any given time and it is named after whatever number book I’m working on. Until “Everything is Everything” became “Everything is Everything,” it was just a big file called “Fifth Book.”  I put every single poetic thing I created since my last book in there: every poem, every poem idea, every title idea, every series of lines I thought sounded good together—really everything, all separated by page breaks.

This has a wonderful effect of making the actual creation of a poem seem like a more ongoing process, and the act of writing and revising a much more organic and forgiving process.

I can’t tell you how many poets I know say they open a new file on their computer, get started on a poem, have it go nowhere and then they don’t even save what they have written. That would drive me crazy! How do you know that the stupid, banal beginning you hated when you finally put it to paper isn’t really meant to trigger something in you months from now when you re-read it and realize what you REALLY were trying to articulate?

Hence, I find having this one big, blobby file is the secret to my prolific success. I dip into it all the time. Whenever I need to flesh out a lit journal submission, I go into this monster file and try to find some half-finished or half-forgotten poems I could revisit. If I am inspired to write, but don’t know about what, there are a bunch ideas or weird titles to get me started. If I am feeling wonky in general, and utterly not creative, I can still go in there, and sweep for typos, or strengthen my word choices, or retitle poems that have generic working titles. Whatever poetic itch I need to scratch can usually be found in that file. And as long as you keep that file open on your computer – all day, every day – you’d be hard-pressed not to grow some serious pages in no time.

I know you have a book about the history of slam poetry in NYC, published by Soft Skull. Have you since become to go-to person for all things related to slam poetry, past and present? Are you comfortable with that role?

Marc Smith, the Chicago poet who created the poetry slam, is always the go to person when it comes to all things related to slam poetry, past & present. He is a true gift to the poetry community at large, an iconic figure really, who has a deep and unwavering love of poetry. After that, you would likely want to seek out Bob Holman, the man who brought the poetry slam to New York City, and was instrumental in exposing the slam poets to the larger mainstream world through his Nuyorican anthology, “Aloud,” and his television projects such as MTV’s “Spoken Word Unplugged” and PBS’s “The United State of Poetry.”

In terms of contemporary poet / scholars, Susan B.A. Somers-Willett, PhD, would be another go-to person. She has written about the poetry slam & its poets in numerous scholarly and literary journals, and recently released the scholarly book, “The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry: Race, Identity, and the Performance of Popular Verse in America.” This is all to say, that I am just one person in a larger community of poets & writers who are invested into spotlighting the poets & poetry from the poetry slam movement.

After the publication of “Words In Your Face,” I definitely have been asked to write about or speak about the poetry slam movement more, and I am proud to do so. The Poetry Slam movement is an American arts movement, and it’s living and breathing movement. There are a lot of things we do wrong, but a lot of interesting things we do rights, and we definitely have earned our seat at the table. If my face or my words can help humanize the movement – make you reconsider the stereotype or reconsider the genre – that I’m more than happy to do it.

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